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French police clash with prison guards in protest over jail conditions

French riot police clashed on Friday with striking prison guards who accuse the government of doing little to counter spiralling violence and Islamist activism inside the country’s overcrowded jails.

The scuffles outside Fleury Merogis prison, one of Europe’s largest with 3,800 inmates, coincided with news from a jail in Corsica that two security guards were attacked and injured by inmates. It is the latest in a series of assaults that have overshadowed France’s prison system in the past week.

“We’re fed up. We’re taking a thumping inside and now we’re being thumped outside,” jail guard Thibault Capelle said after police advancing with shields and using tear gas broke up a picket at the entrance of Fleury Merogis, on the southern outskirts of Paris.

 The protests there and at many other prisons began a week ago, after an Islamist militant jailed over the killing of 21 people in Tunisia in 2000 slashed guards on the head and torso with a pair of scissors in northern France.

With pressure mounting, President Emmanuel Macron said last week a plan would be presented in February to tackle the issue. It would go beyond an existing promise to build thousands of new prison cells, he said.

France’s prison population has more than doubled since the 1970s, to around 70,000, making it one of the highest in Europe.

INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM

The incident in Corsica prompted rapid publication of a statement of sympathy by Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, who was accused of responding sluggishly to earlier assaults.

Maxime Coustie, representative of staff at Corsica’s Borgo jail, said several inmates struck one guard in the back with a sharp instrument and another in the face. Both were hospitalised.

One of the assailants had attracted the attention of prison authorities after beginning to practise a more extreme form of Islam.

Radicalisation among petty criminals is a growing concern in France after Islamist attacks that have killed close to 250 people in Paris and other cities over the past three years.

In addition to more staff and resources, prison guards want the country’s 504 convicted Islamist militants isolated from other prisoners, said Wilfried Fonck, a jailguard unionist.

Fleury Merogis, a sprawl of gloomy grey concrete dating to the 1960s, houses far more prisoners that it was built to take, making it a frequent target of international criticism.

It is also the solitary-confinement home of Salah Abdeslam, suspected of being the sole survivor of an Islamist hit-squad that killed 130 people in Paris in late 2015.

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